In a couple of weeks, I’m going to start one of my favorite annual activities:

teaching Art History to high schoolers.

I have done it enough now that I know a lot of the questions they are going to ask.

One question that is a perennial favorite, one that is inevitably asked is, “Why is this guy famous?”

Maybe it’s a challenge to me, like why am I making them learn this. Maybe it’s a challenge to the world, like “What did you see in this painting, because I sure don’t see it.”

But mostly, what students are not seeing is that fame or success is never a quick process. The artist doesn’t just wake up, decide to paint, and is suddenly a famous painter. Even in the 1700s, people had plenty of things to do, rather than pay attention to some nobody with a paintbrush.

What students don’t see is that Jackson Pollock didn’t start out dripping paint on canvas. The guy could paint. He was classically trained. So was Picasso. These guys try lots of different things before they strike on the thing that the world says, that is worth something. The image of sudden success is almost always an illusion. The same is true today. The people who suddenly pop up on the radar, go viral, or become “overnight” sensations have usually been doing their thing, unnoticed, for a long long time.

That is a hard thing to come to terms with. I think most of us want to be successful. Very few of us are prepared for just how much time and energy that success might take. Students are excited to graduate high school, barely comprehending that they have four to eight more years of school, before they launch their careers and have to start at the ground level. Heck, students walk into my classroom, wanting to make great art, but they don’t have the patience to work on their fundamentals. They want to be great, now, in the space of an hour. Those kinds of expectations always lead to disappointment.

Even today, my teaching life is busy. And that busyness doesn’t cultivate patience in me. I want to get done now, rather than enjoy the process.

overnight

If there is one thing we can teach our children, our students this year, it’s to savor the process. It’s going to be years before our vision will match our results. It’s going to be a lifetime before we have really made it. 

And that’s okay. We don’t have to be famous artists, writers or leaders in order to make it.

Office_buildings_in_downtown_Omaha

A land of freedom…for three days

A couple of weekends ago, Cheri and I left town. We spent a long weekend a few hours away in Omaha, a beautiful city, if you are ever nearby.

We had a great time. We walked the pedestrian mall, explored the art museum and spent a day at the zoo.

We especially had a great time because we left our seven month old with my parents.

Yep, baby stayed away for

Three.

Whole.

Nights.

We had this long weekend planned out in advance, because we were equally agreed on two things. First, that we love to travel and if we could afford it, we would travel somewhere, and secondly, that babies do not make good travel companions. They are better at being homebodies.

I wasn’t surprised that as summer approached and people started discussing their plans, I caught more than one surprised glance. “No baby?” they would ask.

No baby.

And you know what? Cheri and I are better parents for it.

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We Americans sure do love experts.

It’s been at least a generation since the image of an “expert” was the archetypal man in a suit and tie…but we generally still trust him.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing, maybe it’s a human thing. But I find that we spend a lot of time seeking out people who can tell us the way things are, the way the wind is blowing, or the way things ought to be.

No doubt, we need people with specialized knowledge. But I also find that in my life, I have to limit the number of experts that have influence over me. I cannot listen to everyone. 

Why?

Because experts contradict each other. If you are an expert in your field, the best thing you can do for your career is to have a contrary opinion. All of a sudden, you’ll be making the rounds on all the cable news outlets. And the rest of us are left to make petty arguments over the internet over which expert is more “expertly,” which is especially useful when it comes to topics that cannot really be proven.

Experts are often surprised, which in my mind, kind of undoes the veneer of “expertise.” Now, I value the pursuit of new knowledge, and celebrate when experts acknowledge that they have learned something new. (To see the excitement on the faces at NASA over the Pluto photographs was pretty cool.) But when a group of experts is constantly surprised, it tells me that they aren’t really that knowledgable. They have just been given the authority to sound knowledgable.

And finally, I limit the number of experts who are in my life on a very personal level, because I need a sense of discovery in my life. Remember when we were teenagers and our parents had to tell us not to do reckless things? Some people in the adult world think that they need to play that part with other adults. It’s strange but true. These people have written no books, they host no television or radio shows. But they are self-appointed experts. And you and I sometimes need to get them out of our lives. They are the friends who spoil the end of the movie, or the co-worker who is always giving reasons why an idea won’t work. What makes that person such a prophet?

Nothing. They are just cynical, and their cynicism is disguised as wisdom.

experts

Be careful about the experts in your life. Not all of them are really authorities. Some people just crave authority, though they have no way to actually earn it.

So take stock of the people you are listening to. Do they know what they are talking about? If not, then it might be time to jettison them and sail in a new direction.

Just looking at my social media feed, it seems apparent that everyone is in on the sudden push to ban the Confederate flag from public confederateview. People cannot speak out fast enough in order to show that they are on the bandwagon.

I thought we were all in on the conversation…but then there you are, guy with a Confederate flag in your truck.

There are many of you, even here in the Midwest, which surprises me a little bit.

Your flags take many forms, usually displayed in the back window of your vehicle. Some of them are in the form of Chevy or Ford logos or are paired with some of your favorite brands. Sometimes, the flag is on your mudflaps or a bumper sticker.

So, guy who still keeps a Confederate flag on his truck, here is the thing:

For better or worse, I already know everything I need to know about you.

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In a few weeks, my students will return to school. I’ve been in and out of my classroom throughout the summer, working on big plans.

I worry for my students, the same way I worry for my own child. I worry about the world that they will have to live with, the world that is being created today.

I know I’m not the only one who is worried. Studies show that most of us are worried. What has become of our culture in the last thirty or fifty years?

Are we a more civilized people than we were a generation ago?

Are we more educated and enlightened?

Are we more understanding of one another?

Are we more ambitious?

Are we a more peaceful people?

I have to say that I think we are not any of those things. For whatever progress we have made, it seems to me that Americans in particular are less than they used to be on all measures of virtue. We are less knowledgeable about the world and people around us. We are more isolated and divided.

There is a reason that Donald Trump is ahead in the polls, and I don’t think it illustrates a small part of our culture. If the Democrats had a counterpart to Trump, he would be just as popular. Why? Because we like politicians that draw on our fears. We like to draw lots of lines, lines which tell us who is on our side and who is the enemy.

Lines make us feel secure. Lines make us feel safe.

We draw lines on politics, on theology, and every other issue.

Lines, lines, lines.

I tell my students every time we are about to start drawing to draw lightly. Why?

Because it’s easier to draw a line than it is to erase it.

But it is hard for students to pull the pencil gently on the paper. It is hard for them to draw lines which can be easily removed if they turn out to be wrong. Their instinct is to press hard, to grind the graphite into the paper, to make an indelible mark on the first pass.

And when they try to erase, they cannot. The line remains.

By contrast, the only line we see Jesus ever drawing was in the dust. A dust line, that could be easily removed.

And yet, most of us still make lines like we did when we were kids. We pull out our pencil and make a careless line that we never think about again and cannot erase.

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I am concerned about our culture, because we have increasingly stopped being a society of people, and become more of a culture of us and them.

I think it’s my mission to erase a few lines today.

Maybe you could do the same.

Way to "engage" with the culture.

Way to “engage” with the culture.

Over the last few weeks, my social media feeds have been filled with plenty of Christians trying to discern how the church will “respond” to the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.

Most of the responses are based on fear.

Most of the responses belie an “attack and defend” concept of the church.

There are plenty of Christians who think the American church is on the ropes, that we are very close to becoming a persecuted minority. Soon, pastors will be forced to perform weddings they do not agree with, churches will lose their tax exemptions, and perhaps even worse consequences will occur. Cultural influencers publicly cry that there are thousands of pastors willing to “die” for this cause.

And you know what I can now conclusively say?

All of these responses, based on fear, defensively postured, conceptualized as “attack and defend” are kind of pathetic.

And if your church is responding this way, it’s kind of pathetic too.

Here’s why.

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